Travel advice for Navajo Country
May 16, 2013 4:11 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I have our great AZ/NM road trip this month, and we'll be looping around and through the Navajo nation on our way to the Chaco Canyon UNESCO site. What should we know, what should we make side-trips for, and where can we get a good bowl of lamb stew?

We have a multi-day route planned from Flagstaff up to Monument Valley on the Utah border, down to Chaco Canyon for hiking and archeological geekery, and back south to I-40 and Albuquerque. This will take us through and past a lot of those Tony Hillerman names - Tuba City, Farmington, Gallup - but we're not finding a lot of specific information on interesting sights or destinations in that Rez-adjacent NE Arizona / NW New Mexico area. Any advice from the hive mind? History, Native American culture, spectacular sights, and good local eateries all welcome. (Bonus points for actual experience with the Chaco Culture park and the apparently somewhat dicey roads that get you there. Are those going to be a problem?)
posted by ormondsacker to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You've got Shiprock and Walnut Canyon on the list, right?
posted by Dr. Zira at 4:42 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: lists what events are coming up by state and by month. That's probably your best bet to get native cookery.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:52 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Roadside America is a good source for weird and offbeat attractions. There is also an affiliated – I believe – smartphone app that will show you what's nearby.

Monument Valley was really rough on the car: several collared but off-leash dogs that lived in the park scratched up three of the car doors pretty damn bad (and needless to menton, scared the crap out of us). Park staff didn't care. The loop road there is also rather terrible and I would recommend against attempting it in a car with lower clearance. As an alternative, they offer a guided tour in one of their own vehicles as well.

Not quite on your route, but check out Mesa Verde National Park near Four Corners if you can. It is run by the National Park Service just like Chaco Culture, and in that regard it was a much better experience than Monument Valley.
posted by halogen at 5:07 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should know that if you're taking 89 to 89A to Page, the road is gone. If you're taking 160, you should be good. However, Page (and Antelope Canyon) is really sweet.

The drive from Kayenta up to MV is pretty awesome; don't plan on just driving it straight-out.

My experience with MV roads is rather the opposite; we took it in a Civic with no more problems than amazing red dust that got into everything. Depends on what you're used to.

Depending on how long you have, you might extend up into Utah and see Valley of the Gods - it *is* a pretty washboarded road, but beautiful. If you have time, drive up the Moki (Moqui - lots of spellings) dugway on UT261. Ass-puckering, but awesome.

"Awesome", "Awesome", "Awesome". I sound like a broken record. Have fun. Also US 163 cuts through a ridge west of 191 that must be seen to be believed.
posted by notsnot at 5:39 PM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I drove on 491 (formerly 666) from Shiprock to Gallup and it is breathtakingly empty - I mean, sure, the other parts of New Mexico are sparsely populated too, but that area is a whole different kind of empty; it's almost magical.

I've heard anecdotal accounts that the KFC in Shiprock serves some Navajo dishes, including lamb stew, though I haven't been myself. This picture would seem to confirm they have Navajo tacos and lamb stew on the menu.
posted by pravit at 5:41 PM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Monument Valley is wonderful.

Be careful about taking photos without permission.

I don't recommend the Navajo tacos.

On the border of the two states is Painted Desert/Petrified Forest. Also wonderful.
posted by rr at 6:02 PM on May 16, 2013

Be careful about taking photos without permission.

Hi, I'm the OP's girlfriend. Can you say more about this? I've seen warnings on several sites about asking permission about taking pictures, but do they mean just of people and interiors of churches? I certainly want to be respectful, but I can be a bit of an oblivious shutterbug sometimes.
posted by donajo at 6:11 PM on May 16, 2013

Get a copy of the AAA Indian Country Map. I think this is back in print now, but in the past it's been hard to find. Much more than just a road map, it's a great guide for tourist stuff to do. It's remote, mostly empty country; a little planning will help you have a good time.

Chaco is supposed to be amazing. I've not visited, but everyone I know who has loved it. The road going in is no joke, particularly if it's recently rained, so pay attention. Canyon de Chelly is another popular site, and as mentioned above Mesa Verde is pretty amazing.

If I were doing this trip I'd spend some time researching shopping. I think there are still a few old timey Indian trading posts with interesting jewelry, pottery, etc.
posted by Nelson at 6:30 PM on May 16, 2013

There used to be a place next door to the Wetherill Inn in Kayenta — a working-class bar & grill catering to miners (at the world's biggest mine), where you'd hear mainly Navajo. Sorry, it's been a while.
posted by LonnieK at 6:38 PM on May 16, 2013

Best answer: I took the same kind of trip about 7-8 years ago, starting at Mesa Verde and spending a bunch of time hiking along the Utah/Colorado border looking at ancient Anasazi sites. Cliff dwellings were all over the smaller canyons which we reached by shortish hikes (with kids). Also petroglyphs. Some sites may be out of your way to the north, but this was one of my favorite trips of all time.

We really liked listening to local AM radio while driving around. We listened to a station that programmed mostly in Navaho. It was like any really local station, all community stuff, but it gave a real feel for the area.
posted by readery at 6:40 PM on May 16, 2013

Best answer: Also: Acoma Pueblo is right off of I-40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff.

donajo: As to the photos, the most important thing to remember is to be super aware and respectful, especially if you're taking photos which include people. Just ask permission first. Some of it is a cultural thing, but it's also just a basic courtesy thing (taking candid photos of strangers just feels kind of invasive). This is particularly important if you're observing a ceremony, at which photos may be forbidden. Here is some general reservation etiquette.

Also remember when you're on the reservation that you are in a separate sovereign nation, and be aware that you may be in an area or a in a park under the jurisdiction of the tribe, e.g., Navajo or Hopi, just like you'd be aware of where the geographical borders are of any sovereign. There are some parts of the reservation that may be closed to nonmembers and require permits to enter.*

Here's a good Navajo video of etiquette tips.

If you find yourself at a pow wow, there is some additional etiquette of which to be aware. It will vary from tribe to tribe, but here are some general pointers.

*Ask me sometime about the legal history of reservation diminishment and disestablishment, which is part of the reason they have to declare these areas closed to non-members.
posted by Dr. Zira at 7:59 PM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ooops. Re Kayenta:
No, it wasn't a bar and grill, just a grill. Tribal law prohibited alcohol sales, and still does to my knowledge.
posted by LonnieK at 8:20 PM on May 16, 2013

Best answer: We went to Chaco last fall. We took the advice to drive in from the north and it was fine. Definitely washboard gravel road for the last section, and it feels like it goes on forever, but our rental car handled it fine. The info on the NPS site seemed accurate and up to date, in terms of road conditions. We didn't try driving the southern route. Do take as many of the ranger-led tours as you can fit in while you're there. The ones we did were really interesting and added a lot to the visit. It's an amazing place, and worth the trip out there. We stayed in Bloomfield and drove down, spent the day at Chaco, and drove back to Bloomfield for the night, before heading to Santa Fe the next day.

Do include Mesa Verde if you can. It's a great complement to Chaco and very cool in its own right.

Petroglyph Natl Monument outside of Albuquerque is worth a stop.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:54 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I now want to vist Chaco Canyon! I've never been, but general advice about the area: bring more water/snacks than you think you'll need, as it can be a loooonnggg way between gas stations/convenience stores/etc. On that note, be aware of your gas tank levels too. Also, sunscreen. It's a dry/dusty/sunny time of the year right now, so you shouldn't have to worry about road conditions other than washboarded/dusty. Have fun!
posted by csox at 10:49 PM on May 16, 2013

I inadvertantly drove through the Navajo reservation; through eastern NM and west Texas on a roadtrip some years ago. I will nth what csox says about making sure you fill up your tank (!!!) and have plenty of water/snacks (and maybe extra gas?) with you. I happened to have topped off my tank at what turned out to be the last opportunity, and 5 or 6 hours later, I was *very* relieved to see the next gas station! I cut it close, and had a car that got decent mileage.

The countryside out there (the painted desert?) is stunning. Enjoy the trip!
posted by jrobin276 at 12:05 AM on May 17, 2013

Best answer: Near Farmington, NM, I highly recommend a visit to the Bisti badlands. There are some amazong rock formations there, and absolutely nobody around. Be sure to bring a GPS and a map. The drive up there is up reasonable gravel roads, and then you find the parking area, and it looks like the most flat, featureless, boring place on earth. Don't be fooled - walk in just 15 minutes and you will be in crazy hoodoo wonderland. And did I mention that there is nobody there? We saw 1 person in 2 days, and that was probably a fluke.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 12:25 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading the wonderful novels of Tony Hillerman will surely give you some ideas, too.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:32 AM on May 17, 2013

Best answer: My boyfriend and I just did a similar trip! It was awesome! My tips:

-Definitely, definitely, definitely stock up on gas. The Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona was beautiful, but also seemed to go on FOREVER without many signs of any civilization. Definitely have gas, and water. And driving in a car under the desert sun can be HOT, so be prepared for that. (My boyfriend's car doesn't have air conditioning...)

-In Kayenta, eat at the Amigo Cafe. Enchiladas, and Navajo fry bread...mmm...

-I think taking photos of like, rock formations and stuff is okay...the only photography regulations I heard about were in the pueblo villages, but I could be wrong about that.

-It's worth noting that people don't seem to watch their dogs very carefully on the reservations...there are lots of dogs, everywhere, literally packs of dogs darting across the highway. We almost hit one at one point, which terrified me, as I love dogs. In Tuba City, there were actually dogs running down the median of the highway, alongside cars going 40 mph. There were also untethered horses in grassy patches alongside the road--this is in Tuba City, not the countryside. It was interesting but made me frightened for the animals, so it's just something to be aware of.

-You didn't mention if you were going to Santa Fe or not, but if you're interested in hiking and archeological sites, the Bandelier National Monument is about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe, and my boyfriend and I had a great time camping there and exploring the canyon with all the ancient pueblo cliff dwellings--you can actually climb into some of the caves! Really cool.

-If your girlfriend is into jewelry, go nuts...I sure did. You'll see plenty of native artisans selling their own Native American/southwestern jewelry and crafts. I felt good putting money into the hands of the people who actually make these things, and helping support the crafts and the economy of the region. Plus, the things they make are beautiful!

-Eat as much native, regional, and Mexican food as you possibly can. I definitely gained a bit of weight on our trip, but mmmmm so worth it.

Have fun! Now I wanna go back...I live only about five hours from Santa Fe...hmmm...
posted by Emms at 11:48 AM on May 17, 2013

Response by poster: I am having to resist marking the entire thread best answer. Lots of great suggestions and advice here. We will definitely watch our gas gauge, csox & jrobin, and - as per LonnieK and Emms - take some time to look around Kayenta (they have a Diné-centered grocery chain that stocks raw wool! Awesome.). You guys have all spiffed up our trip something fierce. Thanks again!

rr - Heh. You are not wrong, my friend. My grandfather was a local politician deep in the heart of Choctaw territory- I feel like I have eaten my alloted share of grease-dripping frybread tacos for this lifetime.
posted by ormondsacker at 12:29 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is in your range or not, but Kasha-Katuwe/Tent Rocks north of Albuquerque has some spectacular rocks.

This was our Ask from a couple of trips ago, and we did NV/Utah/CO/NM including Chaco last fall. Enjoy your trip.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:50 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

For future Mefite visitors to eastern Arizona: I have a CD of the sites of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Parks, purchased at the gift shop, that I'd be happy to pass along. You pop it in your CD player and a folksy narrator explains what you are seeing. First person to Memail me with their address gets it.
posted by donajo at 12:33 PM on May 28, 2013

Response by poster: Trip report:
  • Acoma Pueblo was a great pick - the tour quite literally stops to sell you handicrafts every ten minutes, but it's so worth it. The view, the culture of a settlement that's been hunkered on their small mesa for centuries watching the world pass below, and especially the church. In its way, that's one of the most striking religious buildings I've ever seen.
  • We were able to stop at both the "historic" trading post and the actual trading post in Tuba City / Moenkopi. The former had more t-shirts and bumper stickers; the latter more raw wool, deer hides, and beaten-up saddles. I did pick up this book at the historic post, which came in handy occasionally.
  • Backroads of the reservation are liberally populated with wandering dogs, wandering sheep, and at one point, wandering dogs herding wandering sheep with no human shepherd in sight. We were cautious about about watching the road and the gas gauge, and never ran into any problems.
  • Monument Valley is pretty rough going for a sedan, especially as the sun gets low and the shadows lengthen in the evening, but we made it fine. The lovely D. insisted we make a sidetrip to Mile Marker 13, and got a beautiful panorama of the park.
  • I never did get any lamb stew. We had an ongoing problem with slightly underestimating the sheer size of AZ/NM and finishing our day after all the restaurants were closed. D did get a late-night Navajo taco at a little diner in Kayenta, and I had some unfancy but tasty mutton chunks wrapped in a thick spongy flour tortilla. We also missed looking in on one of the most extensive Navajo Code Talkers museum in the world, located in the Kayenta Burger King.
  • Chaco Canyon is inspiring, highly recommend. The washboard road in from the north seems endless while it's happening (I want to give my car whatever the car equivalent of a marrow bone is after this trip), but it's only 12 miles. We took a tour of the big pueblo with the University of Northern Iowa Hydrology Department and the world's most chatty park ranger, and then spent the rest of the afternoon climbing around 700-year-old ruins alone in the silent desert.
Great trip, many thanks to everyone for your planning help. If you're in Santa Fe consider Kakawa Chocolate House and La Boca Tapas (Olorosa sherry!), and in ABQ, have a look in at the Book Stop. As mentioned above, we do have a plummily-narrated guide to the Petrified Forest, if anybody wants. Last thing: we did not follow blindcarboncopy's suggestion and get up to the Bisti Badlands. Another couple at our B&B did, and reported that it was stark and solitary and beautiful, right up until the point when they were harassed by an unbelievably persistent feral llama. So... look out for those.
posted by ormondsacker at 6:01 PM on June 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Really glad you got to Kakawa Chocolate. I get super-evangelical about that place, and even got a whole bunch of my coworkers high on their amazing chocolate last year.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:17 PM on June 1, 2013

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